- Brazilian banks have created new rules for releasing credit to meatpackers and slaughterhouses in Amazonian states in which their clients must implement traceability and monitoring systems by 2025 to show that their cattle didn’t come from illegal deforestation.
- Even the powerful Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Confederation (CNA) recognizes the cattle tracking demand and proposes a traceability model to the federal government.
- A new study shows that existing cattle companies’ zero-deforestation commitments have reduced Brazilian Amazon deforestation by 15% and that the devastation could be halved by scaling up the implementation of supply chain policies.
- The ideal animal tracking model is individual, but experts defend a middle-of-the-road solution to reduce illegal deforestation based on cross-referencing from inter-ranch cattle transport data and the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR).
It’s a new scene in the Brazilian beef chain. In March 2023, gathered in Xinguara municipality, in Pará state, known as the “fat cattle capital,” some of the country’s largest cattle breeders debate an ESG agenda for the sector. Not long ago, the deforestation caused by cattle ranching in the Amazon Rainforest was of no concern to livestock farmers. But now, in the face of the climate emergency, they are under pressure. Investors, the meat industry, buyers and consumers know the link between cattle and Brazilian Amazon devastation. For cattle breeders, ignoring the problem has become a business risk. And none of them wants to lose money.
“We can produce more with fewer natural resources, reconciling food and climate security,” Francisco Victer, coordinator of Pará’s Beef Alliance, the ESG event organizer, told Mongabay by phone. “Every farmer, even the most conservative, most resistant, accepts this improvement is necessary for the current scenario.”
One of the topics discussed at the “fat cattle capital” was cattle tracking, which experts point to as the primary tool for curbing deforestation from ranching. The individual identification of 100% of the Brazilian herd is far away. Still, a series of recent decisions by different players in the meat chain shows the quest for traceability is progressing.
In March 2023, the Brazilian Bank Federation (FEBRABAN) approved new rules for releasing credit to meatpackers and slaughterhouses in Amazonian states. Banks that adhere to the protocol must require their clients to comply with measures to combat deforestation. Among the requirements is implementing a traceability and monitoring system that will make it possible to demonstrate, by December 2025, that the cattle bought are not associated with illegal deforestation. The measure doesn’t apply only to direct suppliers but also to indirect — the leading promoters of deforestation.
The tracking system must consider environmental embargoes, invasion of protected areas and Indigenous lands, deforestation signs, the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) status and cases of slave labor associated with the farms.
“We haven’t established a technology for the traceability, but banks are going to demand a transparent, auditable model from their clients,” Amaury Martins de Oliva, director of sustainability, financial citizenship, consumer relations and self-regulation at Febraban, told Mongabay by phone.
The National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES), one of the major financiers of Brazilian cattle ranching, has announced it will adopt the Febraban self-regulation protocol, strengthening its policy to combat illegal deforestation. Since March, the state-owned bank has blocked loans to illegally deforested rural properties based on an analysis by MapBiomas, a platform that monitors deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in real time using high-resolution satellite images.
The new traceability protocol for Brazilian banks is based on the “Boi na Linha” program, a herd monitoring initiative that has also taken a big step in the fight against deforestation. In June 2023, the Brazilian Association of Beef Exporters (ABIEC) adhered to the program with stricter socioenvironmental criteria for cattle purchase. The meat industry expects to conduct an in-depth check of the cattle it buys in the Amazon with the initiative, ensuring that animals raised on illegally deforested farms, on grabbed lands or with the exploitation of workers don’t enter slaughterhouses.
“Every industry that exports meat in Brazil will follow these same procedures,” Lisandro Inakake de Souza, project coordinator at the NGO Institute of Forest and Agricultural Management and Certification (Imaflora), told Mongabay by phone. “The sector needs a system allowing herd traceability.”
Imaflora developed the “Boi na Linha” program based on the so-called Meat TAC, a deal conducted by the Federal Public Ministry in 2009 to force ranchers to comply with regulations.
“There is a lot of work to be done to achieve traceability of indirect suppliers. It’s an urgent discussion we can’t put off any longer,” Souza said.
Of the 39 beef companies associated with ABIEC, 16 have already signed the protocol, including the country’s three largest meatpackers — JBS, Minerva and Marfrig. According to Imaflora, the goal is to have all 39 companies in the agreement within two years, guaranteeing the beef’s lawful origin on 98% of Brazilian exports.
“The meat processing industry is being pushed toward traceability solutions because it could lose markets and funding,” Paulo Barreto, a researcher at Imazon (the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment), told Mongabay by phone.
The European bill to ban imports of deforestation-linked commodities and other movements against illegal deforestation even made the powerful Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Confederation (CNA) recognize the problem and propose a traceability model to the federal government.
In May 2023, the leading agribusiness representative proposed to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply the creation of a free public platform for individual cattle traceability. According to the proposal, cattle producers could join voluntarily within eight years — an extended deadline in the face of the climate emergency. Another questionable point is that there would be no guarantee the platform’s data would be made transparently to facilitate inspection.
“The CNA has shown that it is being pressured, but I don’t think it will be able to solve the problem with the necessary urgency,” Pedro Burnier, a member of the NGO Amigos da Terra and coordinator of the Indirect Supplier Work Group, told Mongabay by phone. “Farmers aren’t in such a hurry because most of the meat is produced in the country, which makes international pressure relative.”
The scandalous link between illegal deforestation and cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon has been proven. A study by the Amazônia 2030 project published in August 2021 indicated that 90% of the area deforested by 2019 in the biome became pastures — with the added aggravation that these areas had productivity rates far below their potential.
Experts point to efficient tracking mechanisms as essential tools to curb devastation. A new study published in the journal Global Environmental Change in May 2023 showed that existing cattle companies’ zero-deforestation commitments had already reduced Brazilian Amazon deforestation by 15%. According to the researchers, the devastation could be halved by scaling up the implementation of supply chain monitoring, especially by identifying and eliminating suppliers that produce cattle in recently deforested areas.
The ideal model for guaranteeing complete tracking of the beef supply chain would be individual traceability since birth, adopted by Australia, Uruguay, Argentina and other meat exporting countries. Usually, this is a GPS-enabled ear tag with a chip storing information on the animal’s origin and transport history.
Today, Brazil has only 4 million identified steers out of 200 million animals — 2% of the herd. The vast majority of steers with individual chips come from breeders who see the benefits of the technology, which is not restricted to controlling deforestation — traceability systems help improve herd management and represent only 0.5% of the production cost.
In August 2023, in another step toward traceability, the governor of Pará state, Helder Barbalho, announced it would implement the country’s first individual cattle tracing program by 2023. But even if the promise is kept, it’s hard to imagine the initiative being replicated quickly in other parts of the Brazilian Amazon.
“Individually chipping 100% of the herd is a long-term solution, which in the future should become a market requirement. But that may take a while, so we need to look for alternatives to reduce deforestation linked to cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon now,” said Burnier, who is working to unite different links in the meat chain to find traceability solutions.
Experts unanimously point to a provisional solution capable of reducing illegal deforestation based on cross-referencing from inter-ranch cattle transport data registered by the Animal Transit Guides (GTA) and land record information from the CAR. The recommendation is to focus this cross-check primarily on properties in critical areas of illegal deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest.
“You can do something quickly, looking at the most critical territories, cross-referencing this data to solve the most serious problem while moving forward with an individual tracking mechanism,” said Imazon’s Barreto.
According to the researcher, Brazilian authorities need a steady hand to approve pro-transparency measures that enable cross-checking of this information. “It has to start by cleaning up those who are most wrong, who operate on Indigenous land, generating not only environmental damage but also a lot of violence,” he said.
It’s a delicate process. Cattle farmers and even the agriculture ministry resist using the GTA, arguing that animal transport guides should only be used for health purposes, not environmental traceability mechanisms. There are additional difficulties. Each Brazilian state has its own GTA database that is usually kept secret because data protection laws limit transparency and the possibility of integration with other information banks.
Pará state, thanks to researchers from the Center for Territorial Intelligence (CIT), has created a platform that accesses GTAs to make a socioenvironmental diagnosis of farms while preserving information considered personal and confidential to producers. It’s a way of circumventing the main argument put forward by farmers against the monitoring with transport guides.
The question of indirect suppliers
Although recommended for the current scenario, traceability based on GTA and CAR combination doesn’t prevent “cattle laundering” — when the animal raised in a deforested area by indirect suppliers is sold as if it had grown on legal farms. In 2022, investigative journalism outlet Repórter Brasil reported large meatpacking companies’ purchase of cattle raised on deforested land. The problem occurs in many parts of the Brazilian Amazon.
“It’s still difficult to trace the indirect producer. The Indirect Suppliers Working Group has developed tools to cross-reference GTA and CAR, but this is restricted to states that provide information. We need access to GTA and CAR databases so everyone can cross-reference them,” Burnier said.
Experts also say partial traceability could be achieved with a centralized, transparent and up-to-date traceability platform maintained by the federal government, combining information from different agencies.
“We need to integrate databases, build risk-based strategies and centralize the logic of traceability, with the federal government playing a leading role in monitoring properties, providing the sector with data to make purchasing decisions. An interministerial initiative must emerge within the government, coordinated by some hierarchical body, to coordinate actions on the different fronts,” Imaflora’s Souza said.
After receiving proposals from different parts of the sector, including CNA, the agriculture ministry is working on a new mechanism for the individual traceability of cattle in Brazil. According to the environmental news outlet ((o))eco, the project is in an early stage, and the platform model still needs to be defined.
Experts fear the proposal will only consider farmers’ demands, disregarding environmental needs. Mongabay has tried to contact the ministry for two months but hasn’t received answers to questions sent by email. CNA also declined to talk to Mongabay about its tracking proposal.
“The government needs to know who it will serve. The ministry of agriculture is under much pressure from the farmers, which means doing nothing toward the environmental side. The government lacks leadership,” Barreto said.
Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change told Mongabay by email that the new Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm) aims to “develop traceability systems for agricultural products in the Amazon.” However, the ministry led by Marina Silva has yet to say whether it is actively working on the platform being developed or whether it will take environmental demands into account.
“If the private sector doesn’t support the actions, things will go downhill. There will be more illegalities, putting businesses at risk. It’s up to the private sector to push the government and Congress,” said Barreto
Burnier agreed. “Today, the ones driving this movement are the meatpackers themselves, who are already under commercial and credit pressure, knowing that this will need to be resolved soon, not to generate business risks. Another driver is the retail sector, which is also pressured by European laws.”
Paulo Pianez, director of sustainability and corporate communications at Marfrig, wrote in an email to Mongabay that adopting monitoring and traceability technologies is one of the pillars of a program launched in 2020 to make the supply chain 100% deforestation-free. According to him, the company monitors 80% of its indirect suppliers in the Brazilian Amazon, focusing on geographical areas with greater socioenvironmental risk. He wrote that Marfrig defends crossing of GTA and CAR until the country has full traceability.
In a statement emailed to Mongabay, Minerva Foods said it had launched an app to monitor indirect suppliers, giving farmers the possibility to consult information about their chain. The company said there was an opportunity to improve animal traceability from source through GTAs, which should be publicly accessible. According to the company, complete traceability of the meat chain went beyond industry initiatives and required the involvement of the government, livestock farmers, retailers and civil society.
Also by email, JBS wrote to Mongabay that it had been monitoring its more than 70,000 direct suppliers for almost 15 years, having blocked 12,000 farms for non-compliance with the company’s socio-environmental standards. The company said that after 2026, only suppliers registered on its traceability platform would be able to trade with the company, including indirect suppliers.
Back in Xinguara, the “fat cattle capital,” Francisco Victer from Pará’s Beef Alliance sees these moves as an investment. “We need to show we are committed to conservation by producing in an improved and correct way,” he said. “The decision to improve practices must come from the producers themselves. Sustainability is an investment.”
Levy, S. A., Cammelli, F., Munger, J., Gibbs, H. K., & Garrett, R. D. (2023). Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon could be halved by scaling up the implementation of zero-deforestation cattle commitments. Global Environmental Change, 80, 102671. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2023.102671
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